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A Brief Synopsis of the Action of the Great Epic of India
Prepared by Donn B. Murphy, Ph.D.
Professor of Theatre Emeritus, Georgetown University, Washington, DC
Appreciation is expressed to the translators whose work has been the basis for this outline, and whose books I strongly recommend. Their heroic industry is making this electronically searchable synopsis possible.
Buck, William. Mahabharata (NY, London: Meridian, 1987).
Brook, Peter. Stage Production: The Mahabharata.
Narasimhan, Chakarabarthi. The Mahabharata (NY: Columbia University Press, 1965). I have adapted Professor Narsimhan's divisions of the epic.
I am a novice scholar in this area, and I welcome the corrections, comments and suggestions which any reader of these pages might care to make. Clearly, I have only begun. firstname.lastname@example.org
India's Mahabharata is the longest epic poem in the world. It tells essentially the story of the rise and results of a great rivalry between two royal houses: The Kurus and the Pandavas. While an outline of this kind can be of some help to neophytes overwhelmed by the complexity of plot and the huge cast of characters in this panoramic drama, the majesty of descriptive poetry and the metaphysical nuance are, of course, lost. Still, the very events themselves are so arresting in nature, so variously and wondrously symbolic, and so thought-provoking that even a first rudimentary encounter with the intertwined personal transactions, the terrible physical and psychological conflicts, the valorous deeds and the astounding magic which plays out among these magnificent mortals and celestials is invigorating mental fare.
The Mahabharata fills many volumes, and within it is contained the Bhagavad-Gita (historical context; Evansville) , itself a work of enormous complexity: One could meditate for lifetimes on the meanings of this complicated epic. Still, even in simplest, the tales told here have power to stun, intrigue and enchant. Let us begin...
THE OPENING BOOK
The Snake Bites Back - King Paraksit, a hunter chasing a deer in a wood, comes upon Samika, an ascetic who had taken a vow of silence. When the king enquires if the sage has seen his prey he gets no answer. Angered, he spears a snake, and drops the dead serpent around the neck of the silent ascetic. Sringi, the sage's son, furious over this insult to his father, calls down a curse on King Paraksit's head, invoking Taksaka, the king of serpents for revenge. The sage, disapproving of the curse, sends his young disciple named Gauramukha, to warn Paraksit. Repentent, but fearful, King Paraksit erects a new palace high upon a pedestal, presumably safe from snakes and other enemies. Snake-King Taksaka sends a group of serpents disguised as holy hermits to King Paraksit, and the King is fooled. He takes their proffered gifts of fruit. From a piece which Paraksit is about to eat, a copper-colored insect emerges. Recognizing that the insect is the Snake King in disguise, and accepting his fate, Paraksit puts the insect to his neck and takes its fatal sting.
The Snake Fire Sacrifice - Upon King Paraksit's death, his son, Janamejaya ascends to the throne, determined to wreak vengeance on Taksaka, the Snake King. To this end, he conducts a ritual in which a sacred fire lures serpents to their death. As priests invoke the names of individual snakes, they are drawn irresistibly into the flames. Just as Snake King Taksaka himself is about to fall into the fire, his nephew, the sage Astika, intervenes. King Janamejaya's wrath having been assuaged, he relents and the sacrifice is halted. Vyasa, a great sage, hearing of the Snake Sacrifice, comes to the court of King Janamejaya, who entreats him to tell the story of the great strife between the Kurus and the Pandavas. Vyasa agrees, but delegates to his disciple Vaisampayana the actual telling.
THE GREAT HISTORY BEGINS
The Children of Ganga and the birth of Bhisma - Aging King Pratipa and his queen, after years of penance at the source of the Ganges River, conceive a son, Santanu (also called Mahabhisa). The king is visited by an enchanting young woman, enquiring after Santanu. King Pratipa tells Santanu, who has come of age, that should this celestial creature ever ask to marry him, he should agree unconditionally to take her as his bride. Pratipa then passes his crown to Santanu, and retires into the forest. In time, the maiden comes to King Santanu, who is immediately smitten and asks her to be his queen. She agrees, on the condition that he never reproach her for any action she may take. Santanu accepts this condition. In reality, Santanu has married the disguised river goddess, Ganga. The royal couple now have seven sons, but at the birth of each, the queen casts the baby into the river to drown. Unable to endure more, King Santanu stops her hand when she is about to drown his eight son. She now reveals her identify, further explaining that the eight sons were reincarnations of the celestial Vasus, who had been condemned by the curse of the sage, Vasitha, to be born as mortals. Since no one on earth would be either their father or mother, Ganga accepted this task, providing Santanu as progenitor, and promising the Vasus that she would release them from their earthly existence as soon as they were born. She asks that the eighth son be named Gangadetta, and she then bids the king farewell, and returns into the depths of the river. The son is also known as Devavrata, and most often Bhisma. Bhisma grows up away from King Santanu, learning the use of earthly and celestial weapons, and becoming a mighty car-warrior. King Santanu, following a wounded deer on the hunt, encounters his now fully-grown son as an adult in the forest. Bhisma has, with his arrows, dammed up the flow of the River Ganges. Now he suddenly disappears, and King Santanu realizes that this is his celestial son. He calls out to Ganga, who, rising radiantly from the Ganges, calls Bhisma forth and presents him to his father, who now crowns him prince heir apparent.
King Santanu Falls in Love with Satyavati, and his Son Bhisma Takes an Oath of Celibacy - One day while walking by a river, King Santanu encounters Satyavati, the lovely daughter of the King of Fishers, plying the waters in her boat. Smitten and determined to have her as his bride, he goes to her father, seeking his consent. The father is willing, but on the condition that the son born of this union shall succeed to Santanu's throne. Unwilling to bypass his son Bhisma, King Santanu returns to his palace greatly depressed. Seeing this, Prince Bhisma asks his father what is wrong. Santanu explains that having only one son, he fears for the royal line, should anything happen to Bhisma. Then Prince Bhisma learns from a faithful palace retainer of Santanu's longing for the fisher princess and the conditions set by her father. Bhisma goes himself to the Fisher King, seeking the hand of the Fisher Princess for his father, King Santanu. The Fisher King repeats his demand that should Santanu marry his daughter, her son must reign. Out of love for his father, Prince Bhisma agrees with the Fisher King's demand, swearing that he shall from that time forward live a life of chastity. He takes Princess Satyavati in his chariot to Hastinapura, the capital city, into the palace of his father, King Santanu.
Santanu and Satyavati are Wed, Their Sons Succeed to the Throne, and Prince Bhisma Kidnaps Three Would-Be Brides - King Santanu makes the fisher princess his bride, and of their union are born two sons: Citrangada and Vicitravirya. Upon Santanu's death, Bhisma, acceding to Queen Satyavati's wishes, sets Citrangada upon the throne. Citrangada proves to be so mighty a warrior that the celestial King of the Gandharvas challenges him to a duel which lasts for three years, ending in King Citrangada's death. Bhisma then sets the juvenile Prince Vicitravirya on the throne, and acts as his regent. When King Vicitravirya comes of age, Bhisma determines to see him well married. To that end, Bhisma goes to the court of King Salva of Kasi, who is holding a svyamvara, or groom selection ceremony, for his three daughters. The impetuous Bhisma sweeps the three princess up into his chariot, and carries them away under the astonished gaze of their would-be husbands. Seething with anger, the competing royals pursue Bhisma and engage in battle, but Bhisma defeats them all. Lastly, King Salva of Sauba is defeated by Bhisma, who nevertheless spares this king's life. Bhisma learns that Amba, the eldest of the princess trio, is engaged to King Salva. Compassionate, Bhisma releases her, and she flees to Salva. The two remaining princesses, Bhisma gives to his step-brother King Vicitravirya to marry. The King lives happily for seven years with his brides, but then falls ill and dies. Still anxious for the continuance of her dynasty, Queen Mother Satyavati begs Bhisma to marry the widowed Queens, Ambika and Ambilika. Having pledged himself to celibacy, Prince Bhisma demurs.
Vyasa Beds Two Widow Queens and a Servant Girl: Dhristarastra, Pandu and Vidura are Born - Satyavati then tells Prince Bhisma of the strange encounter she once had with the sage Parasara, who, enamored of her, had seduced her in her boat on the misty river. In appreciation, he had changed the fishy odor with which her profession had encumbered her, and gave her instead a celestial fragrance. He also assured her that even after giving birth to the child she had conceived of him, she would remain a virgin. That son has grown up to be the renowned sage, Vyasa. The Queen Mother now recommends her son Vyasa as the ideal sire for the widow queens. Vyasa is willing to mate with the widows, but he warns Satyavati that his ugly visage and unsavory odor, reflective of his contemplative life, must be accepted by the grieving queens. He goes in the night to the chamber of Ambika. Shocked at his grim ugliness, the Queen closes her eyes while accepting him into her bed. From their union, Vyasa promises his mother, will come a son who himself will have 100 sons. However, due to Ambika's unwillingness to view Vyasa's countenance, their son will be born blind.The blind child was named Dhristarastra. Vyasa then went to Ambalika's bedchamber. The second widow was frightened by the sage's countenance and turned pale with fright. Vyasa told her that as she had blanched on seeing him, so would her child be pale of aspect, and indeed the offspring was named Pandu (the pale). In time he became the foster-father of the five mighty Pandu warriors. Satyavati urged her eldest daughter-in-law to have another son by Vyasa, but the widow-queen disguised her maid in royal ornaments, and sent her instead to Vyasa. The sage spent the night with the servant girl, but was not fooled. He told her that she was no longer of low station, and that her son, named Vidura, would be the most intelligent of men. Thus were born the brother princes Blind Dhristarata, Pale Pandu, and Wise Vidura. Bhisma brought up his step-brothers as though they were his own sons, training them in all the martial arts, as well as history and the holy books.
Gandhari becomes Dhristarastra's Queen and
Blindfolds Herself - She Produces 100 Sons
- Bhisma learns that the devout Gandhari,
the daughter of Subala, king of Gandara, had obtained from the god Siva
the promise of 100 sons, and secured her as the bride of Dhristarastra.
Her brother, Sakuni, brings her to the court at Hastinapura. When the princess
learns that her husband was blind, she ties a scarf across her eyes, and
never again sees the world. Gandhari then becomes pregnant for two years
without delivering. Striking her womb in anger, she gives birth to a heavy
ball of flesh. On Vyasa's direction, she divides the sphere into 100 parts,
each the size of a thumb, putting each part into a large jar of water.
After two more years, the first son, Prince Duryodhana, is born. Deciphering
portents, Wise Vidura counsels Dhristarastra to destroy this child, who
is otherwise destined to destroy the royal line. But Dhristarastra loves
his firstborn too much to follow this advice. As other jars are opened,
Gandhari and Dhristarastra become father to 100 sons, and a daughter named
Sura, Chief of the Yadus, has a son named Vasudeva, and a daughter named Prtha. The daughter is adopted by Sura's childless cousin Kuntibhoja, and is therefore named Kunti.The sage, Durvasa, seeing that conception will not come normally easy to her, gives her an invocation by which she can summon celestials to beget children on her. Kunti invokes the Sun god, who gives her a child. The ultimate warrior, Vasusena is born wearing armour and earrings, and after his birth, the Sun restores to Kunti her virginity. Embarrassed at her sexual traffic with the Sun, and hoping to hide the evidence of her deed, Kunti hurls her son into the river. He is rescued and raised by a charioteer. Enormously generous, he cuts off his armor and earrings at the request of a beggar, who is in fact the god Indra in disguise. Vasusena is now renamed Karna (the cutter).
TO BE CO NTINUED...... hopefully.....
INDEX TO THE MAHABHARATA WEB SITE